Ten Thousand Foot-Pounds

How To: Properly Wash a Car

This is a question I get a lot, or at least people ask me general questions about how to detail their car. This is where it all starts; the wash. The basic wash is a lost and misunderstood art and should be considered as sacred as the basic oil change. Essential and basic maintenance will keep any car looking good and running well for a very long time. There’s no better way to make your old car to feel new than a good wash and the satisfaction you’ll get from doing it the right way, by yourself, is something to be treasured. At least, it always has been for me! Washing cars has always been a simple, peaceful time that allows me to get to know the engineering nuances and design cues of the cars underneath my mitt.

Washing cars lets me experience them in more ways than being behind the wheel or the camera lens

Let me preface in saying; this is a simple and high level overview. If you want to get really technical, detailing can go as deep as religion and politics. Some disagree with use of a water blade. Some think that bucket grit guards are a must. Some live and die by the brand of soap, mitt, and toilet paper they use. This is all well and good (and trust me, I appreciate this level of enthusiasm) but if you follow these basic principals, you’ll be much better off than the average Joe who lets their vehicle languish in a filthy state year round or takes their vehicle, in which they have invested thousands of dollars, to *gasp* an automatic carwash. Oh, I shudder at the thought.

So, down to business. You’ll need these things:

  • Clean microfiber wash mitt
  • Clean microfiber drying towel
  • Water blade
  • Quality car wash soap
  • Two buckets, preferably color coded
  • Hose, preferably good quality rubber hose with dependable nozzle

When I say ‘clean’ wash mitt and drying towel, I mean freshly washed in the washing machine. You’ll be fine to throw these items in the washing machine after each use, just don’t use fabric softener. Some fabric softeners have additives that can leave streaks and other harmful contaminants on paint.

My equipment of choice. Almost out of Gold Class!

My equipment of choice. Almost out of Gold Class!

First, get your car parked as much in the shade as possible. If you can’t that’s really alright. You’ll just have to be quick to make sure soap and water don’t dry on the surface of your paint. Don’t let the lack of a shaded space deter you from washing your car. Setup your buckets and wash mitt. One bucket should have a soap/water mixture and the other should have just water. You’ll use the ‘just water’ bucket to clean your dirty wash mitt.

Don’t let a non-ideal space keep you from spending time with your car

Wet the entire car, spraying off any loose dirt or mud clumps as you go.

Gray for dirty water, white for clean water, and my trusty sprayer.

Gray for dirty water, white for clean water, and my trusty sprayer.

As you can see, my buckets are color coded to keep them straight. This will be particularly helpful as you try to move quickly, washing each section. As you wash each section of the car, rinse your wash mitt after it becomes dirty in the ‘just water’ (gray) bucket. The idea is to keep your clean, soapy water, actually clean. You don’t want to wash your car with dirty water! This helps get your car as clean as possible and to not rub dirt into your paint. Washing your car with dirty, gritty water will result in swirl marks.

Don’t wash your car with dirty water!

You can also see my preferred style of sprayer. I’ve used many different sprayers throughout the years and I can tell you this is the best style. The top red piece slides back to open the nozzle and the front piece adjusts from a wide spray to a narrow one. This is all you need for car detailing. I find the ‘gun’ style garden sprayers will ultimately break at the trigger and the nozzles just end up getting in your way. Nothing is worse than a sprayer that breaks in the middle of a wash!

Wash each section at a time.

Wash each section at a time.

Break the car into small sections, washing each at a time. Wash from top to bottom, so as not to bring dirt from the bottom of the car to the top. After you wash one section with soapy water, rinse the mitt in the dirty water bucket. Ring out the mitt when you’re done to get as much of the dirty water out of it. Last, spray the soapy water off the surface of your paint with your sprayer. Rinse and repeat, as they say, working your way around your entire vehicle.

If your car is particularly dirty, rinse the wash mitt in the dirty bucket more often. Again, don’t drag a dirty wash mitt across your paint, since this is the root cause of swirl marks which will ultimately cause your paint to look old and dull. The main goal is to keep your mitt as clean as it can be as you wash. If this is your first time using two buckets, you’ll be amazed at how dirty the water looks in the dirty bucket compared to the soapy water.

Compare the dirty water bucket to the other, you’ll be amazed at the difference

Wash your wheels after you've washed your paint.

Wash your wheels after you’ve washed your paint.

Wash your wheels last. Your wheels will be the dirtiest part of your car, so the same principals apply here. It’s not a bad idea to have a dedicated wash mitt for your wheels, since this mitt will get really dirty (especially if you own a German car.) Clean paint and dirty wheels will still look like a dirty car, so take some time here and really get those wheels clean. This will also give you a greater appreciation for those enthusiasts who have multi-spoke wheels and manage to continuously keep them clean. *ahem*

Take as much time as you need to clean your wheels

After everything is clean, you’ll need to dry your car. If you don’t dry your car, dust and deposits will land in the standing water and possibly bond to your paint. Nobody likes water spots and they make your car look dirty, so be as thorough drying as you were washing!

Be as thorough drying as you were washing!

A water blade really helps remove large volumes of water rapidly, especially from flat surfaces.


The water blade with some standing water on the trunk of the car.

An example use of the water blade on the hood.

An example use of the water blade on the hood.

After you blade as much water off as you can, you’ll need to touch up with a microfiber drying towel. Use this towel to soak up any remaining water drops on the paint surface. Pay special attention to your glass and your door jams. These are areas that will make or break the ‘clean look’ of your car that are often ignored. Clean glass and clean door jams go a long way, consciously or not! If your door jams are particularly dirty you can open your door during a wash and give them a pass with your soapy wash mitt.

Don’t neglect your glass and door jams, they’re just as important as your paint

Dry from top to bottom, cleaning all visible spots from glass.

Dry from top to bottom, cleaning all visible spots from glass.

Wipe out your door jams with every wash.

Wipe out your door jams with every wash.

And there you have it, at least for the exterior of you car.  A swift wipe down of your interior and vacuum of your floormats will quickly get you back to that ‘new car’ feeling. Clean paint will also be less susceptible to oxidation, sun damage, and judgmental stares from strangers who think “That person should really take better care of that nice car.” Or you might get “Hey, that’s a really clean old such and such.”

Never to be underestimated: You can always keep what you drive clean.

Either way, clean cars are important! Even if your budget doesn’t allow for a brand new car or an expensive set of wheels, you can always keep what you drive clean. Washing your car on a regular basis gives you a chance to enjoy what you’ve been blessed with and to intimately know the car with which you’ve been lucky to spend some months and years of your life.

All clean and ready for the next drive.

All clean and ready for the next drive.

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